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Requiem For Banality

"Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more."
-- Macbeth, Act V, v

For a while, it looked as if the McDLT was going to be the salvation of mankind.

This was in a more simple time, mind you -- an era of Yuppies and Reagan and The Cosby Show. We were a Great People, enjoying a great prosperity but still haunted by the ever-looming Fear that some unknowable Evil -- war, a plunging stock market, the specter of a Dukakis presidency -- would climb through our bedroom windows at night and spirit the good times away while we slept unawares.

So if something -- even something as simple as a fast-food restaurant menu item -- promised to keep Evil at bay, you bet your booties we sat up and paid attention.

The McDLT, you may recall, was the brainchild of the McDonald's Corp. It promised, through an ad campaign that saturated the nation's airwaves, to revolutionize our primitive burger-preparation technology. Delivered in a space-age, double-wide container, the McDLT separated the burger patty from the leafy lettuce and ripe tomato. It truly lived up to its bold claim of keeping "the hot side hot and the cool side cool."

What a brainstorm! What a wondrous breakthrough! Oh brave new world, that has such burgers in it!

The speculation and hype swirling around the McDLT rose to a fever pitch. And that, in the end, proved to be the sandwich's undoing. Because while millions were aware of the McDLT brand name and flocked to McDonald's across the nations for a taste, they received a rude awakening upon their arrival at the Golden Arches -- the sandwich just wasn't very good. It had no Secret Sauce like the Big Mac. It had no reconstituted onions like the Quarter Pounder. The wizards at McDonald's put the cheese on the cold side of the McDLT, and really, what kind of savage enjoys cold cheese on a burger?

So the McDLT was the big bust-a-roo. McDonald's phased the sandwich out of its menus, and the McDLT died unlamented, unmourned and forgotten as soon as the last bite completed its magical journey through the gastrointestinal tract.

Which brings me to Ellen.

"OK, weisenheimer," more than a few of you are probably grousing right now, understandably put off by seeing the words Ellen and "gastrointestinal tract" in such close quarters. "You lost me on that one. What in the hell does Ellen -- a pleasant-enough sitcom chronicling the zany adventures of an amusing lesbian and a gaggle of her pals -- have to do with ill-conceived McDonald's sandwiches? And I happen to like cold cheese on my burgers, thank you very much. Does that make me some sort of nine-toed, slack-jawed freak in your eyes?"

In a word, yes. But to answer your first question, Ellen has plenty to do with the McDLT... and not just because neither the show nor the burger can boast about its reconstituted onions, either.

A couple weeks back, ABC lovingly put its arm around Ellen, cooed a few soothing words into the show's ear and then, convinced no one was looking, shoved Ellen off a very steep cliff. The last episode of the program will air May 13.

News of Ellen's imminent demise was met in some quarters with the same response normally reserved for the outbreak of war or -- just for the sake of justifying that whole opening rant about the McDLT -- the introduction of a revolutionary new fast food sandwich. Perpetually outraged religious groups claimed victory in their latest sortie to rid the great Satan Hollywood of any last trace of wickedness. Gay activists groups -- no slouches themselves when it comes to perpetual outrage -- denounced Disney-owned ABC for caving in to the forces of villainy and intolerance. And indeed, throughout the entertainment industry, there was much tongue-clucking, teeth-gnashing and rending of clothing over the brouhaha that was the Ellen cancellation.

Which would all be well and good but for one reason -- Ellen is a little-watched, creatively insignificant show that long ago should have imploded under the weight of its own banality, lesbian lead character or no.

Perhaps you remember exactly where you were when Ellen -- then saddled with the snappy, vividly evocative title These Friends Of Mine -- debuted in March of 1994. And if you do remember, then count yourself in pretty exclusive company. While it turned in respectable numbers in its early years, the show formerly known as These Friends Of Mine was no ratings monster.

Myself, I caught maybe a half-dozen episodes of Ellen: The Early Years, and the show always struck me as a colossal waste of talent. Ellen DeGeneres is a gifted, funny stand-up comedian. I think Jeremy Piven is just the cat's meow. Same goes for the consistently enjoyable David Anthony Higgins. And I could sit for hours, watching the lovely Joely Fisher painting her toe nails... were it not for that pesky restraining order, or course.

But Ellen itself has been bland, bland, bland. Born into this world as a thinly disguised rip-off of Seinfeld, the feeble Ellen seemed to suffer whenever compared to its stronger, more robust cousin. Seinfeld, so they say, was a show about Nothing. Ellen was a show about Nothing Interesting.

The always game Ellen did its level best to improve. It banished the weaker, less interesting cast members to the nearest worker's farm. It took Ellen's zany adventures and cranked up the knob to full-blown wackiness. And, in a last ditch effort to juice Ellen's ratings and give the show some creative legs, Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian and had her TV alter ego, Ellen Morgan, do likewise.

You might have read something about that.

Hee, hee. Uncle Phil was just funning with you there, kids. Of course you read something about Ellen DeGeneres kicking open her closet door and cake-walking her way out. Time Magazine ran a cover story on Ellen. 20/20 hauled DeGeneres and her parents in front of the cameras for a heart-to-heart with Barbara Walters--during sweeps, of course. And DeGeneres herself went and got herself a girlfriend -- who, as it turned out, also had product to promote.

Forgive the cynicism. But the media crush surrounding the Ellen-coming out episode had the unpleasant aroma of a ratings stunt about it, turning perhaps the most personal aspect of someone's life into a carnival act.

Whatever DeGeneres' motivation, the move paid off. Some 36 million people watched the coming-out episode. Critics cheered the fact that a long-rudderless show was no longer creatively adrift. Hollywood dumped a bucketload of Emmys in DeGeneres' lap. Ellen the show, it seemed, had been saved.

For a few months, at any rate. Because this year, Ellen has been hemorrhaging viewers like a sucking chest wound. The show has averaged just a shade under 11 million viewers this season -- a 22 percent drop from a year ago. The show retains about 78 percent of the audience from The Drew Carey Show. And in a sign of just how rotten things have gotten, Ellen is being out-drawn by its mid-season replacement -- the phenomenally second-rate Two Guys, A Girl & A Pizza Place.

The problem? Ellen continues to suck the wake of its more accomplished rivals. The show still has the feel of a Seinfeld rip-off... provided, of course, that Jerry suddenly decides he's a lesbian. Which, come to think of it, might make one hell of a last episode.

Just remember where you got the idea, Warren.

In the handful of post-Big Announcement episodes that I've seen, Ellen remains as banal and humdrum as it was before. Only now, DeGeneres and her writers have added preachiness into mix. The end result -- a colorless sitcom whose trite earnestness matches that of after-school specials warning of the dangers of binge drinking and glue snorting.

In the end, that's why Ellen bought the farm -- it just wasn't that good a program. Never was. The fact that it ran for five seasons is testimony more to TV's own inertia than any sort of creative accomplishment. Toss it on the ragpile alongside other works of long-running mediocrity like Coach and Wings and Full House. And be sure to move away quickly before the stench becomes overpowering.

That's not what the wild-eyed religious groups would have you believe. They'd like to sell that story that Disney, faced with the prospect that Cletus and Li'l Joe and Betty Lou planned to steer clear of Space Mountain until that hussy Ellen was given what-for, caved in like a mine shaft in a disaster movie. Well, the moral majority-types are pinheads, a bunch of buck-toothed rubes who holler for hours on end about ideas and concepts beyond their limited grasp just to hear the sound of their own screeching.

Oh, and they're wrong about the whole Ellen thing, too.

And DeGeneres herself is wrong -- or at the very least being disingenuous -- when she blames her show's cancellation on the very thing that saved it from the ash heap of history last year: Her coming out as a lesbian.

That's what she told the sycophants at Entertainment Weekly, at any rate. "They're using the excuse that it's ratings," she says. "But I was fired basically for being gay."

Perhaps. The folks at ABC didn't do DeGeneres and the show many favors this year in terms of advertising support. And the network suits looked like a bunch of frightened Sunday School teachers when they slapped warning labels at the beginning of some episodes of Ellen this past year, even when the content of those particular episodes was no more offensive than a typical installment of Friends.

Unless people are easily offended by banality, that is.

Just for the purposes of comparison, I tuned in for one of the Ellen episodes prefaced by a warning of adult situations and content. What I saw was Ellen and her on-screen paramour enjoying the love that dare not speak its name by holding hands, embracing and, yes, even kissing. Then, I hightailed it to the local video store to rent a couple of motion pictures that also dealt with lesbianism in a frank and adult manner -- "No Man's Land, Part 10," "Where the Boys Aren't V" and "Toys, Not Boys." The three movies were far more explicit in content than the Ellen episode. And they were also much funnier.

So what does my little experiment prove? Nothing really. I just felt like renting some porno, and this way I can put it on my TeeVee expense account. (Editor's Note: The hell you can.)

So ABC gave Ellen the bum's rush. Problem is, a lot of shows on the Mickey Mouse network this year can make that claim. C-16, Cracker, and You Wish came and went with little fanfare. You would need a search party to find out what night Soul Man airs. And I don't think I could name what ABC airs on Thursday and Saturday, even if cash was at stake.

Besides, you don't see Eric Roberts or Dan Aykroyd landing on the cover of Time, now do you?

Which brings us back to the real reason Ellen was set adrift on the ice floe -- nobody watched the damned show. But even there, Ms. DeGeneres has an alibi. It's not that her show was mediocre or that the vast American viewing audience had better things to do Wednesday nights at 9:30. It's because every viewer who didn't watch her show -- and that's you and me, Bucky -- is nothing more than a vile, filthy homophobe.

"That's the problem everybody had with my show," DeGeneres whined to Entertainment Weekly. "At first they said, 'Okay, we know you're gay. We'll let you do the coming-out episode.' Reluctantly they supported me. But then they wanted me to not focus on it so much, to do stories that have nothing to do with my sexuality. I think that once people start seeing we're sexual beings, then it becomes uncomfortable for them. Because they're so used to seeing sexuality between heterosexual couples on television. I mean, they don't blink at Dharma and Greg making out all the time. That's okay. But you see a three-second kiss on the lips - not making out but a kiss on the lips - between two women, and then you've crossed the line. That's what I tried to change."

Say, now there's an ad campaign ABC should have tried -- Watch our self-important little show, you horrible bigots.

"Jesus, Michaels," you're probably muttering, because frankly, it's time to wrap this piece up. "You don't like the groups who protested that Ellen was a black-hearted, ungodly show. You think that ABC suits are a bunch of dopes who couldn't brew a cup of coffee, much less run a TV network. And you're annoyed by Ellen DeGeneres herself. Is there anyone in this fiasco that hasn't earned your wrath?"

Nope. But then, I'm a cruel man.

To describe the hullabaloo over Ellen as much ado about nothing is to insult nothingness. It's a tempest in a mediocre teapot, a mountain out of a molehill... and a fairly unimpressive molehill at that. The lasting lesson here isn't that America isn't ready for a show with an openly gay lead character or that while we've made great strides a society, we still have a long way to go. Rather, the lesson is if you're going to make a sitcom with a gay lead character, make sure that the show's entertaining too.

That, and next time, put the cheese on the hot side of the McDLT.


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